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How Invested Is Russia in Assad’s Survival?

Early on in the uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the emerging consensus on Russia’s efforts to stall Western intervention–even with so much as a sternly worded Security Council resolution–was that Vladimir Putin’s interests could be addressed. He wanted, according to observers, guarantees Russia’s navy would not be expelled from its access to the Syrian port of Tartus and to have a say in Assad’s replacement.

These suggestions were probably true at the time, and may even remain as elements of the Kremlin’s Syria strategy. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seems to have upped the ante, and offered Russia’s clearest declaration yet that it is protecting not just its own interests–which could be granted by the West through negotiations–but Assad himself. The New York Times reports:

Mr. Lavrov, who has strongly defended Russia’s support for Syria’s government but has been increasingly critical of Mr. Assad’s behavior, said during a visit to Azerbaijan on Wednesday that he must comply with the cease-fire plan. But he also admonished the so-called “Friends of Syria” group of anti-Assad countries, which met in Turkey with exile Syrian opposition groups this past weekend, not to provide weapons to rebel combatants, as some of those countries have suggested.

“Even if the Syrian opposition were armed to the teeth, it would not be able to beat the government’s forces,” Mr. Lavrov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.

What Russia wants, first and foremost, is an end to the uprising. If Assad were on the edge, Russia would probably consider pushing him over in exchange for a continued presence at Tartus and confirmation that its economic interests in Syria would remain in place post-Assad. But in classic “strong horse” fashion, Russia is volubly siding with Assad because it increasingly looks as though he has regained the upper hand–or at least that the odds are in his favor.

Admonishing the West and the Arab world that Assad cannot be defeated militarily, even with outside help, is also Russia’s way of suggesting they will not stop arming Assad’s forces, something the State Department has been criticizing for quite some time now.

Russia continues to be the linchpin of the Assad regime’s fight for survival. If Western diplomacy has been premised on the idea that Russia is willing to let Assad fall, it’s time to adjust the calculus.